COLTS NECK - Entering the NJSIAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed in any section should provide a team with a boost, and the Colts Neck boys basketball team was looking for anything it could get heading into the Central Jersey Group IV Playoffs this week.

The Cougars entered the week with beat-up bodies and a bruised psyche after losing three straight games and senior starter Zach Albom to an ankle injury heading into the first round on Tuesday.

Two games later, the Cougars are still physically hurting, but they now find themselves emotionally rejuvenated following a 57-48 win over Middletown South Thursday that secures Colts Neck a spot in the sectional quarterfinals Saturday. Making their sixth sectional semifinal appearance in the last eight years, Colts Neck will host No. 5 Montgomery at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

"Coach (Lou Piccola) has been pushing us in practice ever since our last loss (to Long Branch on Saturday)," Gaines said. "We wanted to get the bad taste out of our mouth and come out just play as hard as we could."

Senior Danny Gaines was a steady force throughout Thursday's win, in which he put up 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. Classmate Ben Bosland got into to the act in the second half, during which he scored 14 of his 16 points to match Gaines. Bosland also grabbed eight rebounds, despite spending a span of the third and fourth quarters on the bench with four fouls.

Senior forward Mike Federici started in place of Albom and gave the Cougars a boost with 11 points and six rebounds, while senior Sabour Quddus pitched in nine points, five rebounds and five assists despite spending the latter part of the fourth quarter hobbled by a lower leg injury.

"We grinded it out," Colts Neck coach Lou Piccola said. "We had some different looks, some different lineups. "We had our best defender out, we had to go deeper into our bench. We fought hard. Survive and advance, that's the name of the game."

After Gaines got the Cougars off to a fast start at 8-3 and later hit Bosland for an alley-oop lay-in to make it 18-12, Middletown South responded with a 9-1 run to take a 21-19 lead at halftime. Bosland, however, came out scorching in the third, following game-tying free throws by Gaines with eight straight Colts Neck points to put the Cougars ahead, 29-24.

"He is one of our top scorers and playmakers," Gaines said of Bosland. "When he's struggling, we struggle as a team a little bit, but when he's on, we play well."

Senior Dave Gervase converted a three-point play to draw Middletown South within 40-37 early in the fourth quarter, but Colts Neck again had an answer. Gaines blew by his man for a three-point play to push the lead back to six points and junior Brian Hill provided a key hustle play by diving on the floor for a steal at midcourt and firing the ball forward to senior Rob Hill for the layup to give Colts Neck a 45-37 lead.

"Brian Hill made the play of the game," Piccola said. "That changed everything for us. Guys like that coming into the game and giving up their body for the team - that's what it's all about."

Senior Ryan Purcell carried the Middletown South offense with a game-high 30 points on 11-for-26 shooting from the field and 4-for-11 from three-point range while also grabbing nine rebounds.

Purcell went out with his second-highest scoring output of the season, which landed him at 1,138 points to finish his career.

Gervase, meanwhile, scored 16 points, giving Purcell and Gervase all but two of Middletown South's points. Senior Nick Unrath scored on a leaning underhanded scoop shot in the lane with 4:11 left in the game to finally give the Eagles a third scorer.

"Ryan did a good job getting into the lane early," Gaines said of Purcell. "He was making a lot of good shots, tough shots. We just wanted to close down the lane in the second half."

Unrath scored 20 points to lead Middletown South in its win over Marlboro on Tuesday in the opening round of the tournament as he, Purcell and Gervase combined for 53 points in that game.

Colts Neck has now built some momentum heading into a matchup of Cougars in the semifinal round, with Montgomery visiting Colts Neck following its 53-44 win over Skyland Conference rival Hillsborough. Colts Neck had to survive an overtime scare to get past No. 16 Monroe and after fighting off Middletown South, the Cougars have their sights set on their second sectional final appearance in three years.

"We definitely have confidence with teams coming into our place," Gaines said. "We just want to play as hard as we can hopefully keep getting good results."

 

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